Tuesday, January 12, 2010

NBC: A study in poor judgment

This late-night talk show debacle over at NBC is quite amusing. In every step of the way, NBC got it wrong. Let me briefly chronicle just how we got to this point. Back in 2004, Conan O'Brien was offered The Tonight Show, only he wouldn't take over until five years later. This was not done because Jay Leno was planning on retiring in five years. This was done to prevent Conan from jumping ship to another network. They thought they could get to keep both of their late-night stars with a compromised solution (force Leno out, defer Conan's promotion five years). Well, the only problem with the plan was that Jay Leno had no intentions of retiring when his term as host of The Tonight Show was up.

So as 2009 approached, NBC, fearing Jay Leno would go to another network (ie Fox) and compete against Conan, offered Jay a prime time show at 10 pm. They threw a bunch of money at him and he decided to give it a shot. Most analysts thought a talk show wouldn't draw enough to be viable. Plus, having a comedy show an hour and a half before The Tonight Show would hurt Conan. NBC disagreed. They went ahead with their plan. Just five months into The Jay Leno Show, NBC raised their white flags and conceded defeat. They were, as most analysts wanred them, wrong. A talk show at 10 pm could not compete with scripted programming.

That left Jay Leno without a timeslot. So the NBC braintrust came up with another plan: move Jay Leno back to 11:35 pm, and push Conan to midnight.To get around the contractual hurdles (Conan was due upwards of $45 million if NBC took The Tonight Show from him), NBC plannned to still call Conan's show "The Tonight Show" and Jay Leno's show as, well, The Jay Leno Show. The only thing that could've derailed this plan was Conan O'Brien coming out against the move to midnight. And guess what? Conan O'Brien did just that. On Tuesday, Conan released a statement that went a little something like this:

People of Earth:

In the last few days, I've been getting a lot of sympathy calls, and I want to start by making it clear that no one should waste a second feeling sorry for me. For 17 years, I've been getting paid to do what I love most and, in a world with real problems, I've been absurdly lucky. That said, I've been suddenly put in a very public predicament and my bosses are demanding an immediate decision.

Six years ago, I signed a contract with NBC to take over The Tonight Show in June of 2009. Like a lot of us, I grew up watching Johnny Carson every night and the chance to one day sit in that chair has meant everything to me. I worked long and hard to get that opportunity, passed up far more lucrative offers, and since 2004 I have spent literally hundreds of hours thinking of ways to extend the franchise long into the future. It was my mistaken belief that, like my predecessor, I would have the benefit of some time and, just as important, some degree of ratings support from the prime-time schedule. Building a lasting audience at 11:30 is impossible without both.

But sadly, we were never given that chance. After only seven months, with my Tonight Show in its infancy, NBC has decided to react to their terrible difficulties in prime-time by making a change in their long-established late night schedule.

Last Thursday, NBC executives told me they intended to move the Tonight Show to 12:05 to accommodate the Jay Leno Show at 11:35. For 60 years the Tonight Show has aired immediately following the late local news. I sincerely believe that delaying the Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting. The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn't the Tonight Show. Also, if I accept this move I will be knocking the Late Night show, which I inherited from David Letterman and passed on to Jimmy Fallon, out of its long-held time slot. That would hurt the other NBC franchise that I love, and it would be unfair to Jimmy.

So it has come to this: I cannot express in words how much I enjoy hosting this program and what an enormous personal disappointment it is for me to consider losing it. My staff and I have worked unbelievably hard and we are very proud of our contribution to the legacy of The Tonight Show. But I cannot participate in what I honestly believe is its destruction. Some people will make the argument that with DVRs and the Internet a time slot doesn't matter. But with the Tonight Show, I believe nothing could matter more.

There has been speculation about my going to another network but, to set the record straight, I currently have no other offer and honestly have no idea what happens next. My hope is that NBC and I can resolve this quickly so that my staff, crew, and I can do a show we can be proud of, for a company that values our work.

Have a great day and, for the record, I am truly sorry about my hair; it's always been that way.



With Conan's response being a resounding "fuck you" to NBC, the decision now rests with NBC. They can either scrap the whole Jay Leno thing and let Conan and Jimmy (and Carson) keep their current timeslots. Or, they can let Conan walk and give Leno his old show back, for a few more years until Leno actually retires (probably in 5 years or so).

Personally, I think NBC should keep things the way they are with their late night line-up. Conan's show didn't fail; Jay Leno's show did. They should let Leno walk. He will likely go over to Fox and he will likely beat Conan in the ratings for the first year or two. But eventually, Leno and Lettermen will be gone, and Conan will be around, for another 15 years or more. What NBC will lose in the short-term they will make up for it in the long run.

That is what I think NBC should do. That is what the responsible and smart thing to do. The only problem is that throughout this whole process, NBC has made one misguided decision after another. So it wouldn't surprise me at all if NBC screwed over Conan (much like they did with Lettermen 18 years ago). Either way, should be interesting.

p.s. A lot of people are taking sides between Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien, and that's fine. I personally like both of them. I watch both shows.


- Abe.

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